Slice of Life: Overheard in the Van

I had the “pleasure” of driving five eighth grade boys to AAU basketball practice last night (and then, did some grading before picking them up and bringing them back home). Our five families are splitting the driving chores, and last night was our night. I quickly realized how big these kids have gotten in the past year as they crammed their way into our van, like clowns in a clown car. They were just missing the make-up.

For the most part, I just listened in to their conversations. Some of the things these eighth grade boys chatted about:

  • The difference between “smart math” and regular math classes.
  • How one of them was sent into the hallway for talking (“so unfair!”) and then when told to go then go to the vice principal’s office, refused to do so (“I just went back in the classroom and sat down at my desk. She didn’t do anything.”)
  • What cell phone carrier everyone had, and the relative merits of each.
  • Whether or not the new basketball jerseys they received from their Suburban basketball team is a  “sweater” or a “fleece” or something else.
  • How a friend of theirs dropped their iPod in the hallway at school, watched it get accidentally kicked down the hallway, and then when he finally retrieved it, he accidentally stepped on it, cracking the glass. (“You know how mad he gets, too. It was scary.”)
  • How they were “fooling” a mutual friend into thinking two of them had a fight with each other. It appears to be an elaborate ruse.
  • Whether baseball is a better spring sport than lacrosse but how basketball beats them both.
  • Whether the history homework was really due today (and if so, they needed to work on it when they got home)
  • How to take on a bigger person when you are playing one-on-one, playground-style.
  • Whether this year’s AAU team has any promise.

I had the windows cranked open as we drove home. They smelled like a sweaty gym. (Which, of course, was the source of many jokes). And we we listened to the final minute of the UMass vs. Drexel game in the NIT tournament as UMass clawed its way back from a 17-point deficit to win the game and move on to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. There was a collective “whoop” and then it was back to other topics.

Peace (in the front seat),


Book Review: Transitions

14 Feb

A few months ago, a teacher friend down in Maryland with whom I have had a collegial partnership with over the years (see The Longfellow Ten for one of our collaborative classroom adventures) told me that his students had created and published a book of stories, and would I be willing to pass it along to some of my sixth graders? He hoped they might review the book. I did, and the few who read it really enjoyed it.

The book of stories is called Transitions, and it was written and illustrated by eighth graders in George Mayo’s class. It is only now that I have had a chance to spend some time with the book, and it is wonderful. The introduction by Zoe sets the stage for the stories to follow, as she explains that the theme of the writing was to capture characters in transition. “Life is full of obstacles,” Zoe writes, and the stories show how characters learn to overcome or at least deal with those hardships.

My favorites were “The Little Clouds That Could” (about friendship); “Jungle Friends” (about acceptance of differences); “Topler” (about doing the right thing); and “Everything Is Going to Be Okay” (about divorce). The stories were strong, the characters were interesting, and the theme rang through over the course of the collection.

Oh, I should mention the artwork, too. Wow. I was blown away by the detail and the quality of the drawings that go along with these stories. The colorful hand-drawn pictures make this book a real pleasure to read and experience. These young writers should be proud of what they accomplished, and I would highly recommend a copy of “Transitions” for any elementary and middle school classroom.

Peace (in our transition),

PS — here is what one of my students wrote about the book:

I just recently read the book Transitions. I really enjoyed the creativity and was astounded at the fact that it was written and illustrated by an eighth grade class. I liked the book because it had answers to real life situations and made you look on the bright side of your life. Also, it was broken into 7 different stories witch were all different so , many questions were answered. In the end I think that the book was fantastic and that the class did a great job. Read to find solutions if your life takes a scary, bumpy road and you will be brighter.

– Rowan, sixth grader

Slice of Life: Analyzing Student Writing Data


I’ve been trying to use more data in my analysis of my classroom instruction. I’m not obsessed with the numbers, but I have been convinced that the use of data can help me think about how to bring my students along. I suppose this idea has its roots in the vast amounts of numbers now being provided by our state from our standardized testing. That information has been helpful in identifying overall weaknesses of our school and that has helped me make some shifts towards open response, non-fiction reading and more.

This year, our principal asked our team of teachers (our Community of Practice) to set an ELA goal early in the year. We decided that our goal would be around open response writing to reading, which is something I have been doing yeoman’s work around this year and last year with my students. I see the difference in the quality of their writing. Anyway, our goal was that 80 percent of our sixth graders would be “meeting the standard” of our open response rubric by January. (The “meeting the standard” is connected to our standards-based reporting.) I’ve been keeping charts of how all of my students have been doing as a way to document their growth.

Literature Open Response Sept11
In September, after administering an open response question to some literature, this is what the numbers looked like.  You can see that only 7 percent of my sixth graders were where we needed them to be. Many were in the “progressing” stage, which is what one would expect at the start of the year. What the numbers don’t show is that the writing across the board was pretty weak. They had trouble with using evidence to support their answers, with showing connections in the text, and with using critical thinking skills for analysis.

Japanese Paper Houses dec11
In December, that gap began to close. Notice in this next diagram how the shift began to move from various sections, upward. That was a good trend. But we were still far away from our January goal.

China Warrior Open Response march12
Two weeks ago, they were given another open response assessment. On one hand, we’re nowhere near our goal of 80 percent in the Meeting category, and I am wonder if that was even a realistic goal for us. On the other hand, notice how few students there are now in the lower bracket — the Beginning to Understand category — which is where our struggling writers have often found themselves. We’ve worked hard on graphic organizing and structure, and that is paying off for a lot of kids. And there is a slight shift from Progressing into Meeting, just not nearly enough.

So yesterday, I began to ponder my own roles. Am I being consistent with my scoring from September through the present? (I think so). What does it mean if not everyone “meets” the sixth grade standard around writing? What else can I be doing to support the development of my students as writers and thinkers? I think, as teachers, this kind of internal inquiry never ends. I feel like I am in a constant state of trying to make my approach more effective and more engaging for my students.

Peace (in the sharing of the data),

Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

I’m not sure what to make of Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. On one hand, it’s an interesting story of a small town in Pennsylvania with deep history coming towards an end of something. On the other hand, I wasn’t all that smitten with the writing, even though I wanted to like the main character — Jack — and I wanted to be drawn into the shenanigans of the town.

I know Dead End in Norvelt won the most 2012 Newbery Award, but I’m not quite convinced it was the best YA book out there.

Still, Gantos weaves some funny lines and paints a descriptive picture of the small town nurtured by Eleanor Roosevelt herself (she hovers in the distance like some fairy godmother) as the original members of the town of Norvelt start to drop like flies in the summer of 1962. Jack, grounded for the summer after shooting a hole in the town movie screen and destroying his mother’s corn crop, is only released from his “captivity” (of reading history books) to help an elderly woman (Miss Volker, an oddball character full of life and history and perspective) write the obituaries of the elderly citizens when they kick the bucket.

A mystery ensues, and Jack is caught up in it all.

Jack’s voice as the narrator is dry and funny, and his interactions with his mother and some of the elderly people around town are amusing. But his constant nosebleeds turned me off (I still don’t quite understand the purpose of it) and I never really connected to the character of Jack’s dad, who desperately wants to leave Norvelt for Florida.

Again, I have mixed feelings. I don’t feel like I wasted my time with Dead End in Norvelt, but I was left feeling like I wanted something more out of Jack and his story of the summer when everything seemed to change. Gantos, who grew up in Norvelt and whose main character is Jack Gantos, doesn’t quite deliver.

Peace (in the small town),


Slice of Life: Ridin’ with the ‘Wrecking Ball’

My youngest son spent the weekend with my father, who lives about 90 minutes away. He regularly takes one of the three boys for an overnight visit, coming to get them from our house and then I go pick them up. Before I jumped in the car, I downloaded the new Bruce Springsteen album to my iPod. I figured this was the perfect time to give it a listen, in its entirety.

I hit the highway and hit the volume, and soon, I was cruising south down Interstate 91.

I’m a fan of Springsteen, although not one of those rabid ones who thinks he some sort of rock god. I often have mixed emotions on his albums. Most have one or two great tracks stuffed in with some fluff tracks. The one album of later Bruce that I hold in high regard is The Rising, which he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 and still chokes me up sometimes when I hear some of the tracks. His ability there to bring the listener into the lives of characters experiencing profound loss and sadness … and hope, even, is something often missing in modern songwriters.

Sprinsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, is another mixed affair. With Bruce returning to his tried and true themes of economic disparity and political corruption and the state of the American Dream (and using more studio work to layer his sound, echoing the Born to Run days), the album skewers the fat cats on Wall Street and mourns the loss of opportunity for the blue collar folks in our country. There’s a real Celtic edge to this album, too, which no doubt reflects some of the work he has done in recent years around the songs of Pete Seeger and that live disc recorded over in Ireland.

And Woody Guthrie’s words and voice seeps through the album, too. As does the saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons, whose sax part was engineered into the song,  Land of Hope and Dreams, after he had passed away from complications from his stroke. (Bruce gives an emotional interview about Clemons in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine, too. It’s touching the relationship and friendship that Bruce and Clarence had developed over the decades together.)

I didn’t skip any of the songs on the first listen, but on round two, I found myself centering on just four or five songs. While the song We Take Care of our Own is getting the spotlight because its a message that the song hammers into your head, I think the title track — Wrecking Ball — is the much better song. There’s a moment in the song where the band pulls back, and Bruce’s words come to the forefront. It’s a reminder of the power of a few lines, and the poetry of songwriting.

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go ….
Yeah, just to come again

By the time I got to my father’s house, I was immersed in Springsteen’s music and words. Sometimes being alone with music is the best way to spend your time alone.

Peace (with Bruce),


On Reaching and Nurturing Teachers as Writers


I’m going to try to pull a few different strands together here …


The other day, I was invited to present at a school district to the north of me. My focus was on the expanding definition of literacy and how the four strands of English Language Arts (writing, reading, speaking and listening) remain the center of the new Common Core standards (which our state has adopted and adapted) and the concept of 21st Century Skills (re:technology). The district wanted me to focus on how I nurture and value writing in my own sixth grade classroom.  I began the session with what I thought might be a good opening — I asked the crowd of about 45 teachers (mostly 4/5/6 classroom teachers) what their philosophy around the teaching of writing is.

I was not ready for the silence.

You could hear a pin drop.

I am not sure if my question was unfair to them at that point in the session or whether they have not really had the time to sit down and think about this issue, and articulate a philosophy. I don’t want to make any judgments. They were an attentive group of educators, with lots of questions and insights as the day moved along. They were very engaged, and they wanted to be there. (Sometimes, that is not the case). But I keep thinking back to my question and the lack of response, and what it might mean in a larger picture.

I did try to articulate my own philosophy around writing and literacy in the session. Here is what I share with parents and students, and which is part of my classroom curriculum website:

  • The act of writing is an important way for students to learn by processing their ideas into coherent and organized form;
  • Writing should be done across various curriculum areas and not be taught in isolation;
  • Students should write for various audiences; At times, they may write just for themselves, for the classroom or, sometimes, for the world;
  • Technology can be a useful tool for composing various forms of writing and media, including audio podcasts and video;
  • Writing should be authentic and allow students to make connections between school and the world outside of school;
  • Artistic elements and the concept of design play a role in the way that young people compose writing and other media;
  • Reading quality books and stories of various genres provide an insight into the writing process and allow students to reflect, connect and utilize critical thinking skills;
  • All students can succeed and improve as writers and readers and composers of multimedia.


A day or two later, I picked up my latest edition of Voices from the Middle journal from the National Council of Teachers of English. The theme of the March 2012 edition is “Preparing our Student as Writers.” This is right up my alley! But something struck me in the introduction by the editors (Diane Lapp, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey). They note the results of a survey they administered to about 120 practicing teachers in summer courses they taught.

The teachers were asked questions such as how they define themselves as writers and do they like writing and teaching writing?

“The majority reported they did not enjoy writing, did not believe they were good writers, and did not believe they were well-prepared to teach writing.” (p. 8 )


Is that just a fluke of the teachers in their programs or is that an indication of something larger among teachers?


This brings me to two personal observations.

First, most of the readers here know that I am part of and a strong advocate of the National Writing Project, which is built on the premises of teachers as writers, and writing to learn. Now, more than ever, as many states make the shift to standards that have writing and research and analysis at the center of classroom instruction, organizations like the NWP that support and nurture teachers as writers, and allow for reflection for how to bring those skills into the classroom, are more important.

And more in danger than ever, too.

The NWP lost all of its federal support a few months ago during budget cuts, but recently, it received some back through the federal SEED initiative. Teachers need support networks and places to share expertise and learn from each other.

Second, I began thinking of the Slice of Life challenge that has been going on this month over at Two Writing Teachers. Each day, more than 100 educators are now writing, and sharing, and commenting, and creating a writing community. Some days, the numbers reach nearly 200 posts, plus countless comments that writers are leaving for each other.

This is a huge jump from other years of Slice of Life, and it shows how technology can transform writing practices for teachers. Ruth and Stacey, the wonderful overseers of ideas at Two Writing Teachers, have really nurtured a lot of teachers who sometimes express in their posts their fear of writing in a public space coupled with a desire to see themselves as writers, if not just for themselves then for their students. They are diving in with Slice of Life, and hopefully, they are experiencing something transformative.

Teachers, as well as young writers, need places to be nurtured as writers. Formal organizations like NWP and informal networks like Two Writing Teachers and countless more that are out there in the world are making a difference. If you have been on the outside looking in, come join us with your own writing and then reflect on how that experience as a writer might shape or reshape your own teaching instruction with your students. Writing is more than writing for the classroom. Writing is about making sense of your world.

Peace (on the soapbox),


Audio Book Review: My Weird School Daze

My Weird School: Books 1-4 (Audio) ~ David Gutman (Author) Cover Art

My seven-year-old son and I have had some good laughs while listening to an audio version of Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze. With titles of the four books such as Miss Daisy is Crazy and Mr. Klutz is Nuts, how can you go wrong?

Gutman’s sense of fun and voice of character (always a hallmark of his writing) comes through in this series for young readers, and listening to John Beach bring it all to life (not easy, given the crazy characters) was enjoyable. There’s not a whole lot of depth to the stories, which made it perfect for the car, where we could go days between listening and still easily catch up. And I didn’t realize just how many books there are in this series until I was googling around a bit. That man is busy.

The “story” behind these books is about the young narrator, AJ, who doesn’t like school all that much but begins to notice that his teachers and principal are a bit nuts. That at least makes school interesting for him and his friends. Of course, what AJ doesn’t realize is that while he never thinks he is learning, he is. His teachers are pretty wily, and imaginative. I was reading some of the comments at Amazon, and some people were offended by the “I hate school” sentiment of AJ, but I didn’t mind all that much.

We all have those AJs in our classroom, and maybe you and I and our colleagues are a little nutty at times, right?

Peace (in our weird schools),


Slice of Life: Life on the Basketball Court

Zero is the number of games my older son’s suburban/travel basketball team won this season. Not a single game. I think they ended up 0-22, with tournament games included. We still cheered him and his team on from the audience and we commented on his good plays.  We were his biggest fans, my wife and his brothers and I. He shrugged off the kudos, though, and while he was disappointed by how his team fared in a very difficult league, he could at least laugh about it from time to time. Still, it was difficult for him. He loves basketball. He loves playing competitive basketball. And he’d like to win once in a while. There are only so many words we can give him to buffer that frustration.

In contrast, his younger brother (our middle son) was on a similar travel team for his age bracket that went to its championship game yesterday and won so handily and by such a large margin that my son, afterwards, commented to a friend in our van, “I sort of feel sorry for them (the other team), to have their season end that way.” He said it very compassionately, as if he was thinking the roles could have been easily reversed. Maybe he was thinking of his older brother. He had noticed the tears that some of the opposing team’s players were shedding at the end.

And then there is the little brother, who played on a recreation team for first graders. You would think he would have some solid skills from all those times in the gym, watching his older brothers. But .. no. Not yet, anyway. Mostly, he stood around on the court, watching the action pass him by or was running and jumping so much he could not even catch the ball. He still has trouble dribbling. The basket seems miles away when he shoots. If he shoots. He almost never touched the ball during games. But he had a lot of fun out there. And we cheered him on as much as we cheered on “the brothers.”

So, what does his coach give their team? A massive trophy. Yep, the little one who did the least on the court gets the biggest trophy. Which he has been polishing. (I won’t digress into the topic of trophies for young children, except to say that I don’t see the need.)

And so ends the youth basketball season for us. Sort of. My older son is now on a AAU travel team that we hope will win a few games this season. We hope.

Peace (on the court),



Slice of Life: Rocking the House with the Band

Our first gig was a success! My band, Duke Rushmore, had out first outing last night at a brewery in a nearby town, and about 175 people came out to, eh, “sample” fresh beer by the Paper City Brewing Company and listen to some music. We were a bit nervous, given that this would be our first time before a live bar audience (we did play briefly last year at a benefit concert at my school) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

But it was fine. No, it was great. We were mostly pretty tight, and the crowd got into it. We were handing out Duke Rushmore tambourines and shakers, and while the place is not designed for dancing, a few folks did cut the rug for a few songs. Most just held their cups and swayed to the music, and we got a lot of a good feedback from people.

I tried to set up my Flip camera, but I could not get it in a good angle. I’m not sure if we can salvage much of the video footage, but one of the bar dudes jumped up on some kegs and filmed a few songs for us, and then loaded it up to YouTube. The first song is my original song, which is really called “Champagne, Whiskey and the Rhythm and Blues Tonight” but we changed it to “Irish Whiskey.” The problem was that we kept forgetting to switch the words, so we had this funny exchange (you can’t see it on the video) between us singers, looking at each other, like, It’s Irish Whiskey, you fool, and then we were both cracking up.

The second song is our encore, which we hadn’t practiced all that much. The singer thought he would forget the words but they came back to him at the right moment.

Peace (in the rock and the roll),

PS — that’s me on the saxophone, by the way.


Slice of Life: The Fairy Godmother Becomes a Navy SEAL

Conferences with parents are always interesting, and informative, but it is particularly nice when you can reconnect with a family whose sibling you had years earlier. I had that experience yesterday. Before we got down to “business” about their daughter, I asked about their son, who was in my class years ago and is in his first year out of high school. I haven’t seen him in years. I remember him as a short pudgy funny-man, who had great background knowledge but was quick to crack a joke.

Well, his mom said, “You would not recognize him. He’s becoming a Navy SEAL. He’s tall and buff and looks nothing like he used to.”


Apparently, he has had this goal in his head for a few years now to join the elite military force, and he has worked to get himself in tip-top physical and mental shape, and is now in the process of trying out for the SEALs. He’s about to go through some intense training with the Navy and many of those who apply don’t make it into the unit, needless to say.  It truly is an elite force. His mom and I both talked about how proud they must be of him, and also how scary it is, given the missions the SEALs are now being sent on all around the world.

My mind kept racing back to when he was in my sixth grade class, and in particular, I remembered our Fractured Fairy Tale play project. We put on a production for the school that year, and this boy (and another boy) were the shining stars of the show. The future SEAL had the part of the fairy godmother, and he came to school the days of the show decked out in a bright purple tutu, with pink wings on his back, and an oversized wand. He played the part to the hilt on the stage (I still have the DVD somewhere).

I’m having a hard time reconciling my old fairy godmother as a possible Navy SEAL, to be honest. Let’s hope that if he makes it into the program, some magic dust keeps him safe wherever he ends up in the world.

Peace (in memory),